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Academic Problems Case Study

Genres in academic writing: Case studies

A case-study is the most difficult to give you clear advice about as it may contain many other genres. The main advantage of a case study is that it gives you a chance to study one aspect of a real-world problem in detail from many different viewpoints.  That is its main advantage. It doesn’t just restrict itself to a single research procedure such as a library search or interview data – but it could use either.

At the beginning, therefore, you need a problem to solve. You will then lead the reader through the stages of the investigation, which you will describe and evaluate, to the solution.

A case-study can, for example, make use of:

  • Library research.
  • Interviews
  • Questionnaires
  • Observation
  • Diaries
  • Historical documents
  • Collection of current documents

First you need to identify a problem. This could be, for example, the introduction of a new working practice in a factory or office. You would then describe the new practice, what it is, how it works, why it was introduced; then observe how it works, talk to people who are affected by it, talk to managers and then evaluate the results and come to a conclusion.

The way you would write up a case-study depends on the purpose of the case-study. Yin (1994, pp. 4-6) identified three different types of case studies, which you could choose from according your purpose. They are exploratory, explanatory and descriptive case studies

  • An exploratory case-study is initial research that tries to look for patterns in the data and come up with a model within which to view this data. In this kind of research you would collect the data first. You would then try to make sense of it, doing any reading you needed to. Research questions for this kind of case-study can focus on “what” questions: What are the ways of increasing sales?
  • Descriptive case-studies take this further and try to obtain information on the particular features of an issue. This type of case study will require a theory to point the data collection in the correct direction. Research questions here can again focus on “what” but lead to questions such as: What have been the effects of a particular sales activity?
  • Explanatory research continues this even further by trying to analyse or explain why or how something happens or happened. Research question in this case are more likely to be of the “how” or “why” type: Why did a particular promotion activity lead to increased sales?

He then distinguishes six different types of case study report that can be used for the different types of case-study (p. 138).

1. Linear Analysis
This is the typical business or scientific research report structure, organised in the IMRAD style. See above: Writing a report.
2. Comparative
A comparative study looks at the same issues several times from different points of view.
3. Chronological
A third type of report is to present the evidence in chronological order, gradually building up the descriptive and analytical structure.
4. Theory-building
In this structure, each new section of the report will show a new part of the theory being presented.
5. Suspense
In this case, the outcome or conclusion is presented initially. The remainder of the report will then develop the explanation.
6. Unsequenced
This is useful when the case study consist of many small sections or studies. It is important, though, at the end of this stage to pull everything together.

Yin (p. 138) then offers the following table to suggest ways in which you could write up the various kinds of case study.

Type of Structure

Purpose of Case Study




1. Linear Analysis

2. Comparative

3. Chronological

4. Theory-building


5. Suspense




6. Un-sequenced



The following sequence would probably be appropriate, with the sections changed round as necessary, depending on the type of study.

Case Study Report



Introduce the situation

Describe the problem – why the study was undertaken

Background reading

Describe previous research

Give examples

Evaluate previous research


Report what methods you used

Explain why you used each method


Report what you found from each method


Summarise all results

Compare and contrast the different results


Evaluate findings in light of background reading.


Summarise the main findings

Generalise from the findings


Make recommendations for the future

End matter

Back to Introduction

Case Studies

What are case studies?

Case studies are stories. They present realistic, complex, and contextually rich situations and often involve a dilemma, conflict, or problem that one or more of the characters in the case must negotiate.

A good case study, according to Professor Paul Lawrence is:

“the vehicle by which a chunk of reality is brought into the classroom to be worked over by the class and the instructor. A good case keeps the class discussion grounded upon some of the stubborn facts that must be faced in real life situations.”

(quoted in Christensen, 1981)

Although they have been used most extensively in the teaching of medicine, law and business, case studies can be an effective teaching tool in any number of disciplines. As an instructional strategy, case studies have a number of virtues. They “bridge the gap between theory and practice and between the academy and the workplace” (Barkley, Cross, and Major 2005, p.182). They also give students practice identifying the parameters of a problem, recognizing and articulating positions, evaluating courses of action, and arguing different points of view.

Case studies vary in length and detail, and can be used in a number of ways, depending on the case itself and on the instructor’s goals.

  • They can be short (a few paragraphs) or long (e.g. 20+ pages).
  • They can be used in lecture-based or discussion-based classes.
  • They can be real, with all the detail drawn from actual people and circumstances, or simply realistic.
  • They can provide all the relevant data students need to discuss and resolve the central issue, or only some of it, requiring students to identify, and possibly fill in (via outside research), the missing information.
  • They can require students to examine multiple aspects of a problem, or just a circumscribed piece.
  • They can require students to propose a solution for the case or simply to identify the parameters of the problem.

Finding or creating cases

It is possible to write your own case studies, although it is not a simple task. The material for a case study can be drawn from your own professional experiences (e.g., negotiating a labor dispute at a local corporation or navigating the rocky shoals of a political campaign), from current events (e.g., a high-profile medical ethics case or a diplomatic conundrum), from historical sources (e.g., a legal debate or military predicament), etc. It is also possible to find published cases from books and on-line case study collections. Whatever the source, an effective case study is one that, according to Davis (1993):

  • tells a “real” and engaging story
  • raises a thought-provoking issue
  • has elements of conflict
  • promotes empathy with the central characters
  • lacks an obvious or clear-cut right answer
  • encourages students to think and take a position
  • portrays actors in moments of decision
  • provides plenty of data about character, location, context, actions
  • is relatively concise

Using case studies

How you use case studies will depend on the goals, as well as on the format, of your course. If it is a large lecture course, for example, you might use a case study to illustrate and enrich the lecture material. (An instructor lecturing on principles of marketing, for example, might use the case of a particular company or product to explore marketing issues and dilemmas in a real-life context.) Also in a large class you might consider breaking the class into small groups or pairs to discuss a relevant case. If your class is a smaller, discussion-format course, you will be able to use more detailed and complex cases, to explore the perspectives introduced in the case in greater depth, and perhaps integrate other instructional strategies, such as role playing or debate.

Regardless of the format in which you employ case studies, it is important that you, as the instructor, know all the issues involved in the case, prepare questions and prompts in advance, and anticipate where students might run into problems. Finally, consider who your students are and how you might productively draw on their backgrounds, experiences, personalities, etc., to enhance the discussion.

While there are many variations in how case studies can be used, these six steps provide a general framework for how to lead a case-based discussion:

  1. Give students ample time to read and think about the case. If the case is long, assign it as homework with a set of questions for students to consider (e.g., What is the nature of the problem the central character is facing? What are some possible courses of action? What are the potential obstacles?)
  2. Introduce the case briefly and provide some guidelines for how to approach it. Clarify how you want students to think about the case (e.g., “Approach this case as if you were the presiding judge” or “You are a consultant hired by this company. What would you recommend?”) Break down the steps you want students to take in analyzing the case (e.g., “First, identify theconstraints each character in the case was operating under and the opportunities s/he had. Second, evaluate the decisions each character made and their implications. Finally, explain what you would have done differently and why.”). If you would like students to disregard or focus on certain information, specify that as well (e.g., “I want you to ignore the political affiliation of the characters described and simply distinguish their positions on stem-cell research as they are articulated here.”)
  3. Create groups and monitor them to make sure everyone is involved. Breaking the full class into smaller groups gives individual students more opportunities for participation and interaction. However, small groups can drift off track if you do not provide structure. Thus, it is a good idea to make the task of the group very concrete and clear (e.g., “You are to identify three potential courses of action and outline the pros and cons of each from a public relations standpoint”). You may also want to designate roles within each group: for example, one individual might be charged with keeping the others on task and watching the time; a second individual’s role might be to question the assumptions or interpretations of the group and probe for deeper analysis; a third individual’s role might be to record the group’s thoughts and report their decision to the class.  Alternatively, group members could be assigned broad perspectives (e.g., liberal, conservative, libertarian) to represent, or asked to speak for the various “stake-holders” in the case study.
  4. Have groups present their solutions/reasoning: If groups know they are responsible for producing something (a decision, rationale, analysis) to present to the class, they will approach the discussion with greater focus and seriousness. Write their conclusions on the board so that you can return to them in the discussion that follows.
  5.  Ask questions for clarification and to move discussion to another level. One of the challenges for a case-based discussion leader is to guide the discussion and probe for deeper analysis without over-directing. As the discussion unfolds, ask questions that call for students to examine their own assumptions, substantiate their claims, provide illustrations, etc.
  6. Synthesize issues raised. Be sure to bring the various strands of the discussion back together at the end, so that students see what they have learned and take those lessons with them. The job of synthesizing need not necessarily fall to the instructor, however; one or more students can be given this task.

Some variations on this general method include having students do outside research (individually or in groups) to bring to bear on the case in question, and comparing the actual outcome of a real-life dilemma to the solutions generated in class. 

Sources referenced:

Barkley, E. F, Cross, K. P. & Major, C. H. (2005) Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San-Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Christensen, C. R. (1981) Teaching By the Case Method. Boston: Harvard Business School.

Davis, B. G. (1993) Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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